How Making Mistakes is Actually the Key to Success

Read about the importance of taking risks and making mistakes to grow from them.

How well do you handle failure — at work, in school, in relationships?

Not so well? You’re in good company.

The problem is bad enough that some colleges have introduced programs to teach students that imperfection is, well, perfectly alright.

“Young adults face an onslaught of curated social-media feeds that show peers’ seemingly perfect lives, school officials say, which can make them feel alone in their failures,” reports the Wall Street Journal. “Add to that the bubble of parental protection and the high stakes associated with attending a pricey college, and schools say students need help understanding that stumbles are inevitable, and even valuable, parts of growing up.”

And the stats back up such concerns. A recent study by the American College Health Association that suggests that more than half of all undergraduates find academics “traumatic or difficult to handle.”

The story caught my attention because I teach nursing, and I tell my students early on that failure is pretty much expected. In fact, one of the things we teach is failure resilience — the skill to learn from failure and move on to improve — because failure is so unavoidable when learning a difficult skill.

We all fail when we are learning something new — it’s the key to our success. Come to think of it, it just might be the key to all success.

I tell my students that it’s a lot like going to live in another country. You can study the language; you can study the culture and history; you can go online and try out virtual visits there — even chat with natives in real time. Yet, as every ex-pat discovers quick enough, there’s nothing like actual feet on the ground — actual, unpredictable, on-site human interaction — to show you how much you don’t know. You’re bound to make spectacular errors in discourse, mannerisms, and decorum, but that’s how you learn.

Every nurse who’s ever given you a shot — or started an IV in your arm, or inserted a nasogastric tube, or whatever — once didn’t know how to do that. And now he does. It wasn’t magic — it was work, a work that entailed not only the risk of messing up, but often actual mess-ups (mostly on mannikins, thankfully).

The best nurses know that such risk-taking never ends: There’s always something new to learn, another skill to acquire, another kind of clinical situation to find out about.

In other words, the risk of failure is perpetually part of the job. Yet nurses show up to work and serve and keep learning day in and day out.

It’s a good example for all of us. Any new endeavor involves mistakes, but our experience also teaches us that we can handle these flubs and survive — even get better. Simply put, we learn that risk-taking — stretching ourselves, going beyond our bubble — isn’t just part of the job that we need to tolerate. We should embrace it.

And the failure that comes with it.

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